Collective impact: Cooperation within and between cities

A crowd discusses talent strategies in Tampa, FL
A crowd discusses talent strategies in Tampa, FL - James Branaman

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Some issues are just too big to tackle with a single approach. Achieving the Talent Dividend is such an issue: raising degree attainment by 1 percentage point sounds simple enough, but actually making it happen is a huge and complex goal. 
A wide variety of issues impact college degree attainment, from K-12 readiness to financial aid to family support, and in any community, different groups are working on different projects in different areas of expertise. But if a region is going to make real progress toward raising the number of people with a degree, it has to work on everything – together. 
Thus the concept of collective impact is becoming increasingly compelling. And a few Talent Dividend cities have strategically taken a collective impact approach, using a variety of tactics to coalesce groups around the common goal of raising college attainment.
In Cincinnati, the Strive Partnership has won national attention for its coordination of a comprehensive, "cradle to career" approach to educational attainment. In Northeast Ohio, the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education has marshaled the energy of multiple efforts into a one-stop website to help students, parents, families, and educators prepare for, search for, and pay for college in Ohio, while also highlighting career options. And in the Tampa Bay region in Florida, several community colleges and one four-year institution have decided to stop competing for students, choosing instead to join forces and create a hotline that connects prospective students with the school that will best meet their needs. 
Collective impact has five key ideas, according to a widely read 2011 article by John Kania and Mark Kramer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. They are:
A common agenda: The ability to get people to agree on the issues around a problem, and how best to address them.
The Ohio College Access Network tackles college attainment in a multi-pronged way to increase students' chances of getting into college and thriving once there. 
"The thing OCAN does that the Talent Dividend is also doing is to bring these groups together that all have shared goals and shared missions," says Bridget McFadden, director of AmeriCorps programs for OCAN.  "In the end it's all about access to and success in some form of post-secondary education. As resources become smaller and smaller, there's really no way to succeed unless you are working together."
At the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education, a big goal such as Talent Dividend requires collective effort from all sectors to succeed. Their aim is to reach 1,000,000 college degree holders in the region by 2014 – a job that is being tackled by a coalition of groups coordinated by NOCHE, including OCAN. 
"We exchange ideas and best practices and help promote a regional message about the importance of college completion," says Ann Womer Benjamin, executive director of NOCHE.
Shared measurement systems: Deciding what metrics will be evaluated and how to measure them.
The Strive Partnership has different metrics for each of their focus areas. For example, fourth grade reading scores are the agreed-upon measure for an arts education program; percent of children deemed ready for school on a pre-kindergarten test is the benchmark for a kindergarten readiness effort. 
According to Greg Landsman, executive director for the Strive Partnership, data sharing is key to keeping people motivated towards the goal. 
"It starts with being really intentional about what data we're tracking, and lifting people up when the work is getting done," he says.
Mutually reinforcing activities: Ensuring each entity involved in an effort does what it does well and in a way that supports what other groups are doing.
In Tampa, this has meant working regionally. Bradenton, Lakeland and Tampa are each competing for the Talent Dividend individually but have agreed to work toward that goal collaboratively, says Elisa DeGregorio of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional economic development organization that is coordinating the region's Talent Dividend effort. 
On a smaller scale, Tampa Bay Partnership has been helping Polk State College and a coalition of smaller schools set up a hotline for returning students so they can be directed to the place that will be the best fit for them as they finish their degree. 
Working together and pooling resources can accomplish much more than groups trying to attack big goals on their own, DeGregorio says. "It will cost them more and may not have the same impact (to work alone)," she says. "Working collaboratively, they are going to be able to leverage their resources a lot better, and bring different ideas, perspectives an opportunities to the table, which benefits everyone."
Continuous communication: Holding frequent meetings over the long term to build relationships and trust.
Collaboration doesn't just happen – especially not among nonprofits that may have been directly competing against each other for funding in the past. Coming together frequently and allowing people to know and trust each other eases the collaboration process and allows groups to maximize the impact. 
"I don't think it's different than any other relationships – you create an environment where people can work together," says Landsman. "Are they being transparent? Do they have each other's back? And as a leader, can you help facilitate that?"
Communication about the collective impact of groups working together is as important as communication between groups, says DeGregorio; highlighting successes in the Tampa Bay area benefits the region as a whole. 
"It allows me to tell the story and talk about what these groups are doing and how much they care," she says. "I can then portray a bigger story about moving the needle. It's a story to tell positively as region."
Backbone support organizations: Having a separate organization that facilitates and coordinates efforts.
NOCHE serves this role for higher education, and the economic benefit a more educated region provides, in Northeast Ohio. 
"NOCHE's mission is to bring together the business and higher education communities for regional economic advancement, and the Northeast Ohio Talent Dividend coalesces support for a common agenda and shared metrics that organizations use to make the whole region economically competitive," says Womer Benjamin. 
In short, collective impact projects can be incredibly successful if done well.

"It's a combination of having a compelling vision, one that is worth rallying resources and leadership capacity around, and building really strong relationships so that people are in a place to work together around that compelling vision," Landsman says. "In order to keep them going at the table and make them feel a part of something meaningful, you have to have results."
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